Communities must get involved

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In December 1986, a small group of South Shore residents met in the dining room of a parent’s home to discuss the growing concerns about the education offered by the neighborhood high school. A month later, the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore, or CIESS, was born. CIESS initially focused on improving South Shore High School but later expanded to include its feeder elementary schools. In the process, we grew from a group of residents concerned about one school to a network of 10 schools plus community organizations, businesses, institutions and, still, individual residents. But our goals have not changed: community involvement in education and improved academic achievement.

In 1995, after receiving a Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant, CIESS founded the South Shore African Village Collaborative to promote these two core goals by helping youth understand their cultural heritage and community roots. At the heart of the collaborative is the South Shore Educational Charter, which articulates the educational commitment of the community. Its theme—It takes an entire village to raise a childC expresses our philosophy of bringing community and schools together. Its tenets are:

All children have the right and the responsibility to acquire a quality education.

All children have the right to live, learn, work and play in a safe and secure environment.

The community must help its youth honor our African-American cultural heritage as well as understand other cultures and their relationships with the community and world.

Education must include meaningful and productive work.

Education must respect the spiritual life of the community.

Community service by adults and students is the foundation for community unity.

The collaborative has launched a number of programs to advance these beliefs. For example, The Village Elders sends 46 seasoned community residents into all 10 network schools to serve as mentors to students, to help students with their community service projects, to serve on school review teams and to participate in all community festivals. A community service curriculum developed by CIESS and local teachers places all 5th-graders in community service projects that emphasize community building in the African sense. And teams of teachers, parents, principals and community residents have been trained to assess progress in their schools.

As important as the new programs, the collaborative has promoted trust among the schools in our community. Increasingly, they are learning from one another and helping each other. Schools are beginning to lose their fear of outsiders.

Initially, CIESS worked one-on-one with schools, helping them meet their individual goals and overcome their individual challenges. Now we see that much more can be accomplished by bringing schools together. This collaboration didn’t come easily. It took a whole year of meetings and socializing for all the partners to feel each other out.

Now, after more than a decade of work primarily in elementary schools, our attention is returning to the education of our teenagers. We want to take advantage of the increased attention to high school education in Chicago to create:

Quality education. An excellent education for every child that prepares him or her for a full, productive lifeC as a full participant in the economy and as an engaged citizen.

Options for learning. A range of fundamentally different educational programs, identified and defined by community residents, that can address the varied needs and interests of our high school youth.

Small schools. The creation of educational units of no mroe than 600 students within which each student will be known personally and monitored carefully by a like-minded, collaborative faculty whose goal is optimal student performance.

A community resource web. Facilities and programs that not only serve high school students, but also strengthen the educational program of our elementary schools, effectively link the community’s schools together and open them to the broader community.

New leadership. Strong educational leadership that can translate this vision into effective, well-managed, community-connected learning.

We believe the time is right to build on our community assets and on the improvements already made in our elementary schools to create new educational opportunities for South Shore’s students.

Marie Cobb is president of the Coalition to Improve Education in South Shore, (773) 684-6070.